BMW started life as the poor man`s Mercedes. It had about everythingMercedes had to offer in mechanical and technological goodies, without thepretentious price tag.

As people started to mention BMW in the same breath as Mercedes, the BMWfolks started believing their cars were Mercedes-perhaps better than the Benz.Upstart BMW slipped past puberty into adulthood and became the rich man`s toy,the symbol of yuppiedom.

The price rose so high that only commodities traders, contingency lawyers and baseball players reaching free agency could afford a BMW. Mere mortalscould read the sticker only after sitting down and popping a nitroglycerintablet to steady the heart.

Bimmer owners wore wingtips or spiked heels with designer jogging togs.Owners ran around in their machines with their proboscises so high in the air that sunroofs became known as nose vents on cars sporting kidney-shapedgrilles.

For 1993, we sense a change at BMW. There`s still some pretension (moreburl walnut trim than you find on some dining-room tables) and the windowsticker ($83,000 for the top-of-the-line 850Ci) is still best read only after checking whether eyeballing it is covered by your medical plan.

But all the years of BMW boasting about producing a driver`s car and aroad machine finally have become more fact than marketing fantasy. In ourhumble opinion, most BMWs used to perform with no more elan than the ChevyCaprice and for too long were no more than trophies to be displayed in thedriveway as symbols of having arrived financially.

For 1993, BMW introduces the 740i and 740iL sedans, replacements for the735i and 735iL and the first significant change in the 7-series since 1988.You can tell a newly styled 740 from an old 735 because the 740 sports widergrille-center ovals-the traditional BMW ``kidneys``-and alloy wheels.

We test-drove the 740i. The 40 signifies that for 1993 a new aluminum-block, dual overhead cam, 4.0-liter, 282-horsepower, 32-valve, V-8 engineis under the hood and that the 3.5-liter, 208-horsepower, 6-cylinder enginefrom 1992 isn`t. The new engine claims a 0-to-60 m.p.h. time of 7.1 seconds.BMW programmed the computers to hold the 740 to a top speed of 149 m.p.h.

The 4-liter V-8 is very quick and is in a league with the 32-valve V-8sin Nissan`s Infiniti Q45 sedan, Cadillac`s Eldorado Touring Coupe andLincoln`s Mark VIII coupe. BMW has the edge in quiet acceleration, though the 32-valve is called on to propel more than 4,000 pounds.

The price you pay for rapid takeoff is frequent layovers at the fuelpump. The engine, teamed with a five-speed automatic transmission, is rated at16 m.p.g. city/22 highway, which burdens the buyer with a $1,300 gas-guzzlertax. The 16/22 rating seemed a bit generous, based on our weeklong experience and the daily stop at the filling station, where we tithed the petroleumindustry-enough to satisfy foreign and domestic producers.

The fi fth gear is overdrive. The five-speed offers a choice of shiftmodes for different driving conditions and tastes. Economy mode provides earlyupshifts for optimum mileage, if such can be obtained in a car rated at 16/22;sport mode raises upshift points for livelier response; and winter mode is fordriving in the Snow Belt, because it reduces rear-wheel spin by providingthird-gear starts off the line or away from the light. All of this, and BMWsays the transmission fluid never has to be changed.

Perhaps the reason the V-8 seems so responsive is that the suspension isin total harmony with the road.

There`s almost no jostle, bounce, body sway or lean. The car sits flat no matter how hard or often you turn the wheel or how hard you accelerate orbrake.

The suspension is complemented by speed-sensitive variable powersteering, which offers more assist to move into the parking space and less to slip into the passing lane. Either maneuver requires only fingertip act ion.

To make driving more of a joy and less of a chore, you can get optionaltraction control as part of an inclement-weather package ($1,795, includingheated seats, which reach the ``bake`` mode in roughly 1 minute, and a skipass-through space from the trunk into the rear passenger compartment).

Our car was equipped with the option package, and on more than oneoccasion when a lead foot was applied to the rubber accelerator, the wonderfulworld of computer technology kept the nose and the rear end-the car`s andours-pointed in the proper direction.

As if the driver wasn`t spoiled enough, the 740i also comes with antilock brakes and driver- and passenger-side air bags as standard. Moving orstanding-or making an attempt at either-BMW has you covered in the 740i. The740i is equipped with impact sensors, which automatically unlock the doors,switch on the interior lights and flash the hazard lights in case of anaccident.

The base price is $54,000, to which you have to add the gas-guzzler taxand the luxury tax of 10 percent of the portion of the price above $30,000.Standard equipment includes metallic paint; leather upholstery; cruisecontrol; memory seats; stainless-steel exhaust; heated windshield-washer jets;dual power, heated outside mirrors; heated driver`s door lock; a right outsidemirror that automatically positions to show the curb when the transmission is in reverse and returns when in a forward gear; power locks, windows andsunroof; key-fob locking and unlocking control; power, telescoping, leather-wrapped steering wheel; power seats; velour carpeting; tinted glass; tripodometer; rear-window defroster; air conditioning with microfilteredventilation; power sunroof; AM-FM stereo with cassette; prewiring for a phone;and dual vanity mirrors.

The 740i comes with 24-hour roadside assistance as standard and amaintenance program-as a $1,950 option-that covers all scheduled service forfour years or 50,000 miles. It can be extended beyond those limits for $59.90 a year.